Long before Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, there was Don Rickles and Jackie Mason. Among America’s great Jewish comics, these two helped set the standard for humor, at least of the Tonight Show variety.
Rickles and Mason remain active today, though at 80 and 75, respectively, their careers are winding down. Hence the re-release of two classic albums, Mason’s “The World According to Me” and Rickles’ hit album “Don Rickles Speaks!” from 1969 (back when comedy albums could become hits). Both are part of a slate of releases from Jewish Music Group Traditions that includes a re-release of “Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites” from 1961.
Volumes have been written about American Jews using humor to deflect anti-Semitism. But with the tenements of the Lower East Side a fast-fading memory, the humor that sprang from there is taking on a quaintness of its own.
Witness the comedy of “Mr. Warmth.” Rickles made his name in Vegas and on TV with his barbed putdowns of pop culture royalty. “Don Rickles Speaks” was the follow-up to his 1968 hit album, “Hello Dummy,” and it really shows its age today.
“Don Rickles Speaks!” is not straight stand-up, but rather staged as a kind of press conference: “Reporters” pepper the comedian with questions about current events and the stars of the day. Rickles responds with improvised answers. It was probably seen as a bold showcase of Rickles’ quick wit.
Quick he is, but the wit is a bit wanting, mostly because the material is so dated. How many record buyers who spent their high school years listening to Beck and Nirvana will relate to jokes about Steve and Edie or Dick and Liz? Or Anna May Wong for that matter? It’s all so Johnson-era.
Rickles does have keen comic instincts, and at times seems like a prototype of Robin Williams’ style of manic improv a decade or so later. But Rickles’ mistake is stressing his insider status. He was pals with Sinatra, Carson and the rest of Hollywood’s Rat Pack royalty. His métier, at least on this album, was the pop ephemera of the day, the expiration date of which has long since passed.
Which makes the foresight of Mason all the more remarkable. Here’s a guy who started out as a Borscht Belt journeyman (well, he actually started out as a rabbi): tuxedo, Ed Sullivan Show, the works. He could have been a lovable Henny Youngman hack. He could have could have been a Hollywood insider like Rickles. But Mason wisely stood on the outside looking in, playing the outcast observer of Jewish life in a non-Jewish world.
Therein lies Mason’s genius, and never has it shined more brightly than in his 1986 Tony Award-winning Broadway show “The World According to Me.” It was Mason’s great comeback and today, 20 years later, the material is fresh, funny and the very soul of wit.
Rather than dwell on the cultural detritus of the moment, Mason goes for the big picture, seeking timeless universal truths about human nature, especially Jewish human nature.
On doctors, he asks: “In what other business can a man tell a woman to get undressed and send the bill to her husband?” On Richard Nixon: “You can’t screw 200 million people and wind up with phlebitis.”
But his best material zeroes in on the differences between Jews and non-Jews. One great line: “Is there a bigger shmuck on this earth than a Jew with a boat?” When the show is over, he predicts, all the non-Jews will say to each other, “Drink? Wanna drink?” while the Jews will say, “Didja eat?” And of course, says Mason, only the Jews will say his act is “too Jewish.”
That 30-minute routine takes up half the CD, but it’s a work of sheer brilliance. Mason cracks himself up as much as he does his Broadway audience, but how can he not?
Some of his material is unnecessarily tasteless, especially his knocks on African Americans, Italians and Puerto Ricans. It’s not only un-PC to make such jokes, it’s really not that funny.
But with Mason, the good outweighs the crass. He is an aging member of the last of the native Yiddish-speaking Jews, coming of age in a time before assimilation robbed Jewish Americans of much of their cultural distinction. And he captures it beautifully. He’s a one-man comic time capsule.
As for Rickles, his voiceover work on the “Toy Story” films proved he’s still in the game, and his antics on “The Tonight Show” 40 years ago will be fondly remembered. But insults only get you so far.
Mason is the greater artist here, and “The World According to Me” is a world worth exploring.
Jackie Mason’s “The World According to Me” and Don Rickles’ “Don Rickles Speaks!” are available for $12.98 each on JMG Traditions Records. Information: jewishmusicgroup.com.